Best Known as a young revolutionary who took up arms against the British establishment in an iconic gesture, Bina Das numbers among the heroes of Indian history like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Preetilata Wadedar who took up arms against the colonisers.
This short memoir movingly recounts the story of her involvement in the shooting of the British Governor of Bengal, Stanley Jackson, at the Annual Convocation Meeting of Calcutta University in 1932, her subsequent incarceration, and her growing involvement in politics.
Despite her importance in Indian history, Bina Das disappeared from public view in later life and is rumoured to have passed away in Rishikesh in early 1997. This account captures the early years of her life and gives insights into the context and history of the times that inspired Bina to take the path that she chose.
Bina Das’ name has remained on the margins of India’s history of Independence. Daughter of Beni Madhab Das, a renowned Brahmo Samaj leader and the teacher of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Bina and her elder sister Kalyani became active members of a revolutionary group for women in Calcutta. Moved by the brutal treatment meted out to Kalyani and other Bengal revolutionaries, 21-year-old Bina, in a symbolic gesture, fired five shots at Bengal Governor Sir Stanley Jackson at the Calcutta University Convocation in 1932. Her trial was extensively covered by the international media, with one of the British newspapers calling her the ‘Joan of Arc of India.’ Her statement of explanation before the three-member Special Bench of the Calcutta High Court made a profound impact on the judges. Rabindranath Tagore and C.F. Andrews intervened with the British authorities to ensure she was not ordered to be transported to the Andamans.
Titled ‘Agni Kanya’ by contemporary writers, Bina Das’ commitment to justice and truth burned brightly even after independence. She is reported to have died in 1997, unsung and unknown. Her death is a mystery that remains unsolved.
Srinkhal Jhankar, her autobiography, was written in Bengali in the early 1905s, and has been translated into English by her niece, Dhira Dhar. A former professor of English literature and a social worker, Dhar actively helped her other aunt, Kalyani Das, during the Bengal Famine relief work. This translation has been a labour of love for her.
I confess that I feel quite unworthy to write an introduction to the memoirs of Bina Das Bhowmik our beloved Binadi well known revolutionary and freedom fighter of Bengal. Hers was a life completely dedicated to the cause of emancipation of her compatriots in a dual capacity of a non-violent freedom fighter and an armed revolutionary. This task could have been worthily performed by one of her comrades-in-arms in the struggle for the cause of the country. But nearly all of them are now dead and gone and a few who live are too old and exhausted. Perhaps consideration of this factor has induced the publishers of this volume to entrust an insignificant person like me with the responsibility. I have been blessed in one phase of my life by her profound affection. Her younger brother Amal was my contemporary and an intimate friend and through him I had access to their paternal residence in Calcutta. I first came to know Binadi in 1945 when she had been released from jail, after the countrywide August movement in which she had plunged herself heart and soul. Her deep affection that I have enjoyed like a younger brother had since proved a real treasure in my life, the memory of which I still cherish fondly. It still fills my lonely old age with joyous fragrance. It is only the memory of this deep affection that enables me to overcome my diffidence and to say a few words by way of introducing the volume.
Binadi had a graceful literary style, but lifelong preoccupation with the struggles of the country did not spare her much time for literary work, Besides the present book, she only has one more publication to her credit: a memoir of her father, Benimadhav Das. In addition to these a few articles published in the now defunct monthly magazine Mandira, edited by her fellow revolutionary Kamala Das Gupta (who is fortunately still with us), constitute all that she found time to write. But even within this limited field, her literary efforts display the stamp of originality and grace.
The present work is a record of the gradual unfolding of the personality of one who was a non-conformist and a revolutionary by nature. Family background, student life, transition from the career of a non-violent freedom fighter to that of an armed revolutionary, return after a long prison life, participation in the final phase of the freedom movement, re-imprisonment and final release on the eve of independence are described as eventful successive phases which carry a life towards the fulfilment of its mission. The entire story has been presented with amazing literary skill in a technique resembling a somewhat dramatic flashback. The curtain rises on 15 August 1947, on the eve of India’s independence. It marks the end of one phase of struggle, but the victory is certainly not complete. The freedom fighters have had to swallow the bitter pill of partition which took place through a terrible communal bloodbath, and amidst the hilarious joy and excitement of independence, however truncated, a big question mark continues to trouble one who is a revolutionary by nature. Has the struggle finally ended? The memory of the comrades who had fallen on the way makes the heart heavy; joy, sorrow and doubt combine to induce the writer to look back and indulge in serious retrospection and self-examination.
The story begins from Binadi’s childhood. Nearly all the subsequent stages of her life have been examined minutely and the reasonability, or otherwise, of the steps she had taken has been assessed impartially. She has not hesitated to expose the weaknesses of the ideals she had adopted during different phases of her life, revealed in the subsequent analysis. This strictly critical attitude is evenly matched by the element of universal sympathy and compassion, which adds a peculiar charm and sweetness to her narrative. The life of a revolutionary is usually one of hardship and conflict. She has to invariably proceed by striking down. It is not always easy to bear any good will for the defeated opponent; however, our author has succeeded in this difficult task. For an example we can point to her reference to the universal boycott of the Simon Commission in 1928, a movement that had repercussion on the youth of the country and led to the students of the Bethune College (Binadi’s alma mater), under the leadership of Binadi and some others, going on a complete strike. The principal, a haughty English lady, insisted on an apology from the students for their action, and the alternative held out was an immediate expulsion from the college and its hostel. The students, however, remained firm in their resolve, and the principal had to ultimately yield and admit defeat. Her prestige was, however, hurt and she resigned. She bade a tearful farewell to her students sitting with them in the college lawns. ‘No, I don’t want a chair. I am no longer your Principal,’ she said to the girls. After describing the event, the author comments: ‘We had never been close to this strongwilled overbearing English woman. But at the moment of her departure our hearts turned heavy.’ This kind and sympathetic touch has invested an ordinary story with a literary grace of permanent value.
Her narrative very often reveals such tender nuances from which we will select here only a few samples. After she had joined the revolutionary party, one of the main duties assigned to her was to recruit suitable workers for it. With this purpose she had approached the dearest friend of her student life, whom she knew possessed great sympathy for the cause. But after long discussions the friend expressed her inability to join the party. In her description of the event the author does not hide her disappointment but remarks: ‘I was hurt when we parted ways, but I was sure she would find fulfilment in her own way. ‘Another such friend was Irene Khan, a student of the Diocesan College. She could not be won over even after a great deal of persuasion and arguments. The author, however, unhesitatingly remarks: Irene did not come with us, but I still remember how I was impressed by her open and original mind.’ It is easy to comprehend the largeness and depth of the writer’s heart that could even appreciate the point of view of the opponent of its fondest ideal.
A few illustrations of a different kind may be added to the list. In contrast to the hard, ruthless and sarcastic attitude usually found in the memoirs and diaries of die-hard revolutionaries towards their comrades who broke down in the face of brutal police torture, the writer shows signs of sympathy even for these unfortunate victims of fate. We bow our heads to the memory of those who could bear such torments, but my heart goes out to those unfortunates who were defeated by inhuman physical suffering. They lived in life-long misery, misunderstood by all, but ever remorseful for the pain they could not endure. This is certainly the expression of a very rare sentiment in a genuine revolutionary. Can anyone forget the sub-inspector of the Lalbazar police station, who had carried to the writer in prison her lunch and whispered, ‘It’s not from the market. I have cooked it myself for you’; or the petty railway official at the Howrah station who volunteered to carry a message from her to her near and dear ones on her transfer from Calcutta to the Midnapore jail? The sympathetic touch of the writer’s pen has bestowed literal immortality on these otherwise insignificant characters.
The writer mentions two sources of inspiration behind her political life. One was the non-cooperation movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi, the first countrywide mass agitation against foreign rule. The universal nationalist sentiments created by the movement flooded the writer s family. One of her elder brothers, Nirmal Chandra plunged into it and suffered imprisonment. Charkha and khadi made their permanent entry into the family. The atmosphere influenced and inspired the writer and she emerged as an enthusiastic Congress worker and volunteer in the first phase of her political life, completely dedicated to the Gandhian doctrine of non-violence. But gradually there came a change in her outlook and she was converted into a firm believer in armed revolution. This was certainly a crucial moment in her life and she was faced with a choice between violence and non-violence as suitable paths to the ultimate goal of independence. During this critical phase of her life she was advised by Subhas Chandra Bose, who had been one of the dearest pupils of her father. Bose explained that the real thing was to develop within oneself an irresistible desire for the attainment of the final goal; when such a mental state became all consuming, the question of the means to be adopted for the purpose lost all importance. This was certainly, as the author admits, no doctrinal solution to the problem, but it removed all her hesitation and she eagerly adopted the new path in her life. Since then her outlook on this crucial question of methodology remained ever pragmatic, like that of Subhas Chandra. She had always cherished a great respect for Gandhiji and his doctrine of non-violence, but this had never been an inviolable doctrine or a religious faith with her. While giving full recognition to the great role played by the Indian National Congress under the Gandhian leadership in the history of the Indian freedom movement, she frankly states that the history of the political emancipation of India would not be complete if the entire credit for it is given to Gandhi and his achievements. One has to also recognize deeds of revolutionary leaders like Jatindranath Mukherjee, the glorious history of the Chittagong Armoury raid, the invasion of Imphal by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the establishment of national governments in Midnapore, Balurghat, Balia and Satara in complete defiance of British rule, and the brave confrontation of police bullets poor and unarmed peasants and workers. In her subsequent political life she had differed from the politics of Bose and sided with the Congress. Yet her two political idols in life had been Gandhi and subhas whom she held in very high esteem. The Gandhian doctrine non-violence had changed the lives of some true revolutionaries who had consequently lost their faith in violence. But Binadi had a different outlook in spite of her subsequent association with the Congress and she had the courage to admit it. The recourse to the armed revolutions was not a utopian dream with her. She and the revolutionaries of her calibre never believed in the myth of bringing an end to the British imperial rule by the occasional and isolated killing of a few British officers. The real purpose behind the move was to make the nation conscious of its miserable slavery by sacrificing their own lives. It is this ideal that had inspired real revolutionaries like Binadi to welcome a hangman’s rope with a smile on their faces and hope in their hearts. Who would deny today that they had been completely successful in their endeavour?
The fifteenth of August is drawing near. Though our minds are filled with despair and heavy with despondency, though dark shades of doubt loom large, the thought that we are becoming free at last, not in our dreams but in reality, flashes like lightning through our thrilled souls.
We have attained freedom. The British are leaving this country forever. I look around at the faces of my companions. Why do they look so lost and depressed? Why is the country not glowing under sun of liberty? Is this the ‘freedom’ of our dreams? A dream marred by separation, fratricide, a cruel game of Holi being played conflict of petty self-interest? Still in spite of all this, we do not wish to forget that India, our motherland, is cleansing herself from the murky gloom of bondage; she is emerging as a free nations. The bastions of foreign dominance are no longer barring our paths. Maybe, today we are unable to appreciate the significance of this event; but, in the course of time we shall comprehend and true realization will dawn upon those, our future progeny, who will build a golden future for our nation on the foundation of this hard-earned freedom.
Today our nation stands at the crossroads of destiny. Dark agonising nights are over and a glorious dawn lies ahead. What a wonderful moment of light and shade! A moment when we pause, our steps slow down, we look around with strange dreams in our eyes! We were marching ahead, breathlessly like power-driven machines, with the one aim of ‘freedom’ before us. We had no mercy for ourselves, nor did we have any consideration for others; without rest or respite we marched onwards as if we were being hipped on by a cruel task-master. Today we have arrived and LIBERTY and FREEDOM shine in block letters in front of us. We seem to doubt our eyes; looking around, we fail to believe that we have been rushing towards this. Already there are voices murmuring. ‘Hethai noi, onno katha, onno konokhane.’ (Not here, not this, but something different elsewhere.)
But at this dawn of freedom, in the shades of the twilight, let me ponder for a moment. In the dim glimmer of this morning light I wish to turn over the pages of my life and attempt an evaluation. A new age will soon arrive, and we shall all be ready to welcome it. In the vast upsurge of new life we shall not be left behind. In the meantime let me pause for a moment and think about the days that are passing by. I wish to capture the music of the time in my pages. I know the past will soon be forgotten, memories of the painful days that are no more will be lost in the midst of the vital problems of the present. Still I hope that the poignant music of the past will not strike a discordant note in the glorious dawn of a new India. Maybe travellers will stop for a moment and look back with a chastened mind at the sad departed days.
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